Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Oregon's greatest movies
top story

Oregon's greatest movies

  • Updated

All right, movie-loving folks, time to pick your favorite children, and none of the rest get any Christmas presents.

We’ll admit we might be exaggerating just a bit, but that’s what it feels like when asked to pick the top 10 Oregon movies. Top 10 as in what? Dollars generated? Iconic scenes? Percentage actually shot in the Beaver State? Population of the annual visiting pilgrimage? Did we have to actually know it was in Oregon when we first watched it for it to count? 

It’s all subjective, every last cinematic cell of it. So we’re going to just be that way about it and list our 10 favorites here; state sugarplums you can savor and share.

Don’t see yours? Give us a shout in the comments. Consider it a Christmas gift right back to us. Or coal in our stockings. Your choice.

Early screen scene

Oregon’s cinematic history is deep, rich and long — longer, in fact, than Hollywood’s itself.

The first movie filmed in Oregon was “The Fisherman’s Bride,” a silent picture shot in either 1908 (according to the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film & Television) or 1909 (according to the Internet Movie Database). 

Nobody’s sure because nobody actually has a print, said Tim Williams, executive director of Oregon Film, but it was shot in Astoria and completed at least a year, if not two, before Hollywood’s first offering in 1910.

“As an economic development agency, we spend a lot of time fending off complaints that we are peddling to Hollywood” by offering sites in Oregon to filmmakers, Williams said. “This is an Oregon cultural asset and has been since 1908.” 

In fact, he went on, Oregon had three silent movie companies before Hollywood had any. “We were doing it before Hollywood and continue to do it very well, and continue to be very beneficial to Oregon’s notoriety and economy going forward.” 

Buster Keaton found a film site in Cottage Grove in 1926 for his masterpiece, “The General,” which tells the story of a Confederate train engineer who has to go behind enemy lines to save both his train and his sweetheart. 

Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Keith Carradine would also experience Cottage Grove’s train tracks while filming “Emperor of the North,” in which a nasty conductor faces off against the best train-riding hobo west of the Rockies. 

Most of the train scenes from “Stand By Me” also take place in Cottage Grove (though not the trestle scene — that’s the Lake Britton Bridge in Burney, California).

Numerous Westerns feature Oregon landscapes, including “Bend of the River” and “Rooster Cogburn.” The 1968 musical “Paint Your Wagon” practically made a character out of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, although the movie tanked at the box office and got good reviews from almost nobody outside of Baker County (which profited from months of business while the stars were in town).

Oregon is so cinematic that sites all over the state can lay claim to something on celluloid. The city of Athena, between Pendleton and Milton-Freewater in northeastern Oregon, lays claim to the 1930 movie “City Girl,” which featured farms, wheat fields and various locals and livestock. Disney’s “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” features scenes shot in Joseph, the Eagle Cap Wilderness, the Deschutes River, the Columbia Gorge and locations in Central Oregon. 

That’s so Oregon

But what makes a movie an “Oregon” movie? Does it have to be a named part of the script, like “Stand By Me,” in which Brownsville stood in for the fictional city of Castle Rock, Oregon? Or feature iconic scenery that could come from nowhere else, like Haystack Rock in “The Goonies”? 

“Captain Fantastic” claimed to be set in Oregon but was shot entirely in Washington, so does that count? (No, says Williams.) Or is it enough to be in the know, the way fans of “Point Break” know that Indian Beach at Ecola State Park was used for the big finale, and not some poser beach in Australia?

“They were only up here a couple of days and they never identify it as Oregon, but we totally claim it,” Williams said.

(Side note: Indian Beach also formed the backdrop for Bella and Jacob of “Twilight” as they went to their special driftwood tree. Take that, Forks, Washington.)

We can’t really answer what constitutes the perfect Oregon film, let alone 10 of them. Neither can Williams, although he’s working on that answer as part of creating The Oregon Film Trail, a network of trail markers indicating iconic filming locations around the state. 

The idea of the trail, now 21 sites long — expect another 10 or so by next spring — is to strengthen partnerships between the film and TV industries and the communities in which they film, sparking interest in tourism, economic development and local history.

Sure, part of the criteria for placing a sign is that it marks a movie or television show filmed there, but it’s more complicated than that, Williams said. First, the signs cost money, so local partnerships are critical to getting them installed. Second, they need to be somewhere that won’t change hands, so the site should be public — a state park, a government building, something like that. Third, it can’t be somewhere that’s going to impede the public’s right of way. 

“We have to have local agencies and entities tell us what and where they want these things,” Williams said. “We don’t have the money to do it all on our own.”

Unwrapping the best

Support Local Journalism

Your membership makes our reporting possible.

So back to the question of the perfect Oregon film: Given all of the above, in no particular order, here’s our picks for Oregon’s Top 10. 

They’re probably not yours. Most of them aren’t Williams’, either. (They also aren’t the picks of the author’s daughter, who is incensed that “Twilight” has been overlooked, and given the sheer number of Oregon locations showcased in that vampire romance, from Haystack Rock at “La Push” to Multnomah Falls during the baseball game, the omission is hard to defend. But we digress.)

It’s OK to disagree. Take a trip down The Oregon Film Trail and add your own stars. Here are ours:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher)

Sometimes a Great Notion (1971, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Lee Remick)

We’re going to start with the really, really obvious. Author Ken Kesey grew up in Springfield and graduated from the University of Oregon, so it makes sense that when it was time to find film sites for his best-known novels, those sites would be quintessentially Oregonian.

The Oregon State Hospital in Salem was the setting for Jack Nicholson and his band of misfit toys, facing off against the sadistic Nurse Ratched in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” For “Notion,” locations in and around Newport, Kernville and Toledo, and sites along the Siletz River, became home for the fiercely independent Stamper family and their rival loggers (look for the 21st Oregon Film Trail sign, dedicated just last month, at Toledo City Hall).

My Own Private Idaho (1991, River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo)

Director Gus Van Sant is perhaps Oregon’s best-known filmmaker, and “Drugstore Cowboy” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” easily could take this spot — all three feature shots in and around Portland.

“Idaho” gets the nod for having “an amazing sequence of The Sentinel Hotel when it was derelict,” Williams said.

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (Michael J. Fox, Sally Field, Don Ameche)

Does it get any cuter than two dogs and a cat trying to find their way home? Especially when they are doing so throughout four national forests (the Deschutes, Mount Hood, Willamette and Wallowa-Whitman)? We submit it does not.

Wild (2014, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern)

Reese Witherspoon plays author Cheryl Strayed, who wrote “Wild” as an account of her journey to shed her demons and drug addiction while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The establishing shot, where Strayed first sets foot on the trail, is in the Mojave Desert. Pretty much all the rest is in Oregon. The famous boot-drop scene is at Mount Hood Ski Bowl.

National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978, John Belushi, Karen Allen, Donald Sutherland, and yes, that’s Kevin Bacon)

Oregonians know Faber College was actually the University of Oregon, food fight scene and all, and that the parade travels down Main Street in Cottage Grove. Low-budget and, yes, offensive, it’s still considered a landmark comedy. Notable fact: While working on the movie, John Belushi went over to the Eugene Hotel to watch Robert Cray and Curtis Salgado play the blues. We don’t consider the result — “The Blues Brothers” — to be an Oregon movie, but the link is certainly there.

Free Willy (1993, Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Michael Madsen)

Visit Hammond Marina in Hammond, west of Astoria, to see the Oregon Film Trail’s sign in front of the breakwater where Willy, the orca, jumps over the marina sea wall and swims to freedom. The real Willy, whose name was Keiko, spent two years living in a custom-built tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport before moving to a sea pen in 1998 and being released from captivity in 2002. He died a year later in Norway.

Coraline (2009, Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher) 

The stop-motion animated movie, based on a tale by Neil Gaiman about a dark and parallel reality a young girl finds in her new home, was the first feature film produced by Laika Studios in Tualatin. It’s set in a fictionalized Ashland. Chief animator Travis Knight told the Medford Mail-Tribune in 2009 the crew relocated the English setting to the United states because they “wanted it consistent with the feeling of Neil’s book, so we traded one cold, gray, dreary, waterlogged environment for another.” Fair.

Stand By Me (1986, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman)

Steven King’s coming-of-age story turns Brownsville into Castle Rock, Oregon, and the town celebrates “Stand By Me Day” every July 23. A hundred-some area residents were extras during the filming, and some still bring out their classic cars for the annual celebration. Sure, there’s the aforementioned train scenes in Cottage Grove and Burney, California, but if you really want to get into the spirit, wander down Brownsville's main drag and find Vern’s penny.

The Goonies (1985, Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Cory Feldman, Jeff Cohen)

It had to be on the list. You knew that, didn’t you? Yes, Astoria was also home to “Kindergarten Cop,” “Short Circuit” and the aforementioned “Fisherman’s Bride,” as well as the nearby “Free Willy” scenes. But the movie that brings flocks of visitors to town each June 7 is the Steven Spielberg adventure romp that follows a band of young misfits on the hunt for pirate treasure. Goonies never say die! And according to the Internet Movie Database, it was selected into the National Film Registry in 2017 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” so who are we to say otherwise? 

Williams agrees. “Hands down,” he said, it’s Oregon’s most influential film, at least when it comes to outside attention. “‘Goonies,’ we get people from all over the world. They had to shut down the street to the Goonies’ house.”

Yes, yes, we know. There’s more. What about “The Shining” and its iconic shots of the exterior of Timberline Lodge? “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” filmed at Ulysses S. Grant High School in Portland? “First Cow,” shot in Elkton? “Permanent Record,” a very early Keanu Reeves vehicle, filmed in Portland and also on a very cold and misty Yaquina Head north of Newport, which the author personally happens to know, although the beach party scene for which she was an extra ended up on the cutting room floor? 

All we can say is, blame 2020.


Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

  • Updated

Dolly Parton! Loretta Lynn and Jack White! Elliott Smith! Sleater-Kinney! Woody Guthrie! Jerry Garcia! And, of course, “Louie, Louie” and the Kingsmen! Take a trip all around Oregon with our list of the state’s greatest songs!

  • Updated

Jean Auel! Beverly Cleary! Stewart Holbrook! Ken Kesey! Ursula K. LeGuin! Bernard Malamud! Chuck Pahluniak! Cheryl Strayed! Take a trip around Oregon with the best authors ever from our great state!

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alert

Breaking News